Most of the women who had taken part in the U.N. study reported that they were most commonly harassed by being inappropriately cat-called, stared at inappropriately and touched against their will. These happenings occurred in malls, at the markets, on public transport or even when women were walking in their own neighborhoods. The instances of harassment were not dependent on dress or behavior of the woman.
Two lady filmmakers in Egypt, Tinne Van Loon and Colette Ghunim, decided to speak out on what is being called an epidemic issue in Egypt. They have started working on an anti-harassment documentary called “The People’s Girls: which consists of narratives from three individuals; “Esraa, an activist against sexual harassment, Abdullah, a tuk-tuk driver, and an Egyptian lawyer.” The three narratives offer different viewpoints concerning the issue of sexual harassment in each of these people’s lives.
Tinne Van Loon and Colette Ghunim very graciously accepted an interview and took the time to talk with Examiner.com this week. Below follow their statements and information about their upcoming documentary.
Q: What kind of responses have you been receiving from your campaign?
Many Egyptian men and women have been extremely supportive of the project. They feel this is a major issue in Egypt that needs to be addressed, and many women have used our Facebook page as an outlet to share their stories privately, because they often are too afraid to speak out. People from around the world are also engaging in complex discussions on sexual harassment, as well as donating to our Kickstarter campaign to help fund the full documentary. This confirms that the issue resonates beyond just Egypt, even though it is one of the countries most affected. Of course, just as with any controversial issue, the video has sparked heated arguments, bringing the topic of sexual harassment to the forefront of Egyptian social media.
Q: Why do you think sexual harassment and assault has increased over the last few years in Egypt?
Many Egyptian women argue that sexual harassment has been an epidemic for at least the last 10 years, but that it is only being recognized as such recently, since after the revolution more women are daring to stand up and speak out against this phenomenon. The report by UN Women last year really provided the proof of the epidemic nature of this issue. They interviewed thousands of women and men across the country and found that an appalling 99 percent of women have been sexually harassed in their lifetime, and that about half of all women deal with sexual harassment on a daily basis. Partly because of this new data, the Thomson Reuters Foundation named Egypt the worst country for women in the Arab world.
In the years since the revolution, sexual harassment has unfortunately become more widespread, due to the lack of police presence in the streets. This gives harassers a sense of immunity. They can easily get away with it. Luckily since President Sisi has taken power, the police presence in the streets has increased and more harassers have been brought to justice, though we still have a long way to go.
Q: Are more women walking alone in Cairo? What happens if there is need to protect themselves and they do?
Women often go out public alone, just like they do in Western countries: running errands, going to work, to school, to meet up with friends, etc. And unfortunately it is also when she is out alone, that she faces the greatest risk of getting sexually harassed. Luckily, most of the instances of sexual harassment include only staring, comments and lewd catcalls. According to the report released last year by UN Women, where they asked which forms of sexual harassment women have been exposed to in their lifetime, 87.7 percent of women report being subjected to whistling and verbal abuse, 62 percent report having been stalked in the street, 59.5 percent said they have been touched, and 29.3 percent said a man has exposed his private parts or hinted to it. (note: multiple answers were allowed in this question in the study, that’s why the percentages don’t add up to 100 percent).
I have personally been exposed to all of these forms of sexual harassment, and while being touched in the street can be as simple as a man going out of his way to “accidentally” stroke his fingers on your arm or the side of your leg as he passes you on the sidewalk, it is not a violent crime, but it is most certainly unacceptable and a violation of my rights.
More and more often women are gathering the courage to speak up when they are faced with sexual harassment, and luckily more and more often bystanders are taking her side and helping her. The fact that the woman being sexually harassed gains the support of the bystanders is a fairly new phenomenon, due to the media attention in recent years. It didn’t always used to be the case, as victim-blaming is still enormously common.
Q: You’ve mentioned in one of your interviews that though this is epidemic in Egypt, it is not a problem isolated in Egypt alone. What would you like to say to women in patriarchal societies worldwide in lieu of this issue of harassment that is seemingly pandemic?
I really believe that women worldwide have to stick together. It’s so disheartening to read the comments on articles written about our video, where even women are blaming victims of sexual harassment and assault. If women can’t even support each other in this issue, who will? I think it’s also very important for all women to understand that they need to stick up for their rights when they notice that they are being violated, I know this is much easier said than done, and I know I struggle with this myself at times as well, but a lot of Egyptian women have reached their boiling point in the years since the revolution and have become a lot more outspoken. I’m really inspired by them. Many of them even challenge the status quo more than I do. It is their stories that Colette and I are making the focus of our full documentary, “The People’s Girls”, so that these brave women can inspire women worldwide.
5. Have you spearheaded other projects?
I am also the founder of Everyday Egypt, which is a collective of Egyptian and foreign photographers we started on June 8 of this year, the day President Sisi got inaugurated. We chose that as our launch day because once again all of the media attention was on Egypt, yet all eyes once again were only on the political situation. We aim to provide a feed of normal everyday life images from the country. Our goal is to show life beyond the headlines, to emphasize that life continues beyond the protests and revolutions, and to break the many stereotypes that exist about Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole.
The project is part of the greater Everyday Projects movement headed by Peter DiCampo and Austin Merrill who started Everyday Africa in 2012.
Q: How did the documentary start taking shape? Where did the dialogue for it begin?
Based on my personal experiences of being harassed in the streets, and the countless stories of my friends, I decided I wanted to document this phenomenon. Back in December 2013, I published a call for people to come and interview to speak about their experiences and thoughts on the issue. In a five-day period, about 20 people came forward with their stories.
After seeing this clip, Colette suggested we join forces and make a narrative documentary on this issue together.
Q: What is happening in the workforce as more women assert themselves and find jobs?
Women in Egypt have always been a part of the workforce, the fact that women are working and gaining higher education is nothing new. There is a common misbelief in the West that Egyptian and all Arab women are oppressed and practically locked up at home, not allowed to drive cars, or not allowed to leave the home without a male relative, not allowed to wear whatever they want ... I think the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the news cycle around that is largely to blame for this misconception. Women in Egypt have for decades been able to do basically anything a man can do.
They go on to reach degrees in higher education, they can work and have a career, they can reach high leadership roles. Unfortunately of course, there are also societal pressures for women to focus on getting married and starting a family. These pressures are very similar to the ones women in the United States felt a few decades ago.
Q: What do you hope the documentary will accomplish?
We’re hoping that after our documentary gains momentum, people who previously did not consider sexual harassment a big issue, will realize the immense impact it has on all levels of society, and that we will be able to break the stereotype of the victim being to blame. We hope to inspire more women, in Egypt and beyond, to feel empowered to stand up for their rights, and react to the harassment they face.
Q: What is the next step after the documentary is completed and has been distributed?
After the documentary is finished, we will hold screenings in collaboration with women’s rights organizations both in Egypt and abroad, to have the film serve as a discussion starter.